THE BLOG

The G8 Sings Out Commitments to Tackle Sexual Violence but How Vast Is the Gap Between Promise and Practice?

11/04/2013 08:45 BST | Updated 10/06/2013 10:12 BST

Two weeks ago, Nazlie Bala, a human rights defender in Kosovo, was brutally attacked and beaten outside her apartment. Amnesty issued an urgent action on Nazlie's behalf calling for her protection to be guaranteed, concerned about her safety. She has received death threats after supporting a law that would provide survivors of war crimes of sexual violence with compensation and rehabilitation.

Sexual violence committed during conflicts such as Kosovo, is high on the agenda for the G8 foreign ministers meeting in London on Thursday. Heralded as a newly star-studded issue a few weeks ago when the unlikely, yet formidable double-act of Angelina Jolie and our own foreign secretary William Hague toured refugee camps in the Democratic Republic of Congo and spoke of the need to tackle rape in war. Since then there has been a sense that sexual violence has finally got the cheer leaders it deserves, the question is what concrete improvements for people like Nazlie and the victims she works for, can be achieved as a result of this profile.

At the meeting on Thursday and Friday, Hague will take the opportunity to push his fellow G8 Ministers to show their support for his Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative, a high-level political drive to address the shocking levels of impunity for the devastating and pernicious violation of human rights that sexual war crimes represent. His is a welcome voice drawing the world's attention to the urgent need to tackle conflict-related crimes of sexual violence. However, it is also a reminder that governments and the international community have yet to prove they take their obligations on this issue seriously.

A little over ten years ago, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 1325 which recognised that civilians, especially women and children, account for the vast majority of those adversely affected by armed conflict, and are increasingly targeted by combatants and other armed elements. The resolution commits states to ensuring women's meaningful participation at all levels of peace negotiations, in recognition that their otherwise typical exclusion fundamentally undermines efforts at sustainable peace. Further UN Security Council Resolutions (namely 1880, 1820 and 1960) address conflict-related sexual violence, and include a move to identify sexual violence as a matter of international peace and security. There is much in William Hague's initiative that resonates with these existing obligations, including commitments to providing of support for victims and improving data collection and evidence to enable the criminal prosecution of perpetrators.

The scale of the challenge to address impunity for conflict-related sexual violence cannot be underestimated. Sexual violence has been associated with several recent conflicts, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, East Timor, Liberia, and Rwanda, and whilst it is very difficult to know with certainty how many women, men and children have been targeted for rape and other forms of sexual violence in these conflicts, even cautious estimates are in the many, many thousands. Despite such high incidences of rape and sexual violence - almost as an established weapon in the combatant's arsenal, a common feature of modern conflict - very few perpetrators have ever been brought to justice, leaving abusers free from any punishment and their victims without justice or reparation , compounded by little if any health or psycho-social support.

Out of the tens of thousands of alleged crimes of sexual violence committed against women and girls during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, fewer than 40 cases have been prosecuted by either the International Criminal Court, or by state and entity courts in the Republic since 1995. In fact, the authorities in the entity of Republika Srpska continue to deny the the full extent of the sexual violence committed during the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia and Herzegovina that shattered the lives of thousands of women across the country.

Since the start of that particular conflict, Amnesty collected testimony from women who were subjected to torture, including often systematic and repeated rape, sexual slavery, forced pregnancy and other crimes of sexual violence. Only last year, Amnesty highlighted how many of the survivors still struggle with the physical, emotional and social consequences of the crimes committed against them. Many survivors have developed post-traumatic stress disorder. They typically feel insecurity, shame, self-blame and suffer from fragmented memories, a lack of concentration, nightmares, flashbacks, anxiety and are mistrusting of other people. Stigma and ostracism remains a real fear for many, preventing them from sharing their experiences with family members or seeking the help they need.

These are the lived experiences of survivors of conflict-related sexual violence the world over. That is why a holistic long-term approach is needed, that includes measures to improve emergency responses to support victims and survivors, through to working with governments to change discriminatory laws and practices which facilitate impunity, criminalise victims and perpetuate gender-based stereotypes and discrimination. It is also why providing protection and support for women human rights defenders like Nazlie Bala, who carry out this work - year in, year out - is crucial.

William Hague deserves praise for pushing this initiative, he has been clear about his commitment and ambition; we now need the international community to follow this lead and this week in London the G8 must turn rhetoric into reality.